Sunday, January 2, 2011

A Port City New Year, With Dessert

Wow, hello everyone! Its 2011 and I can’t believe it. How did you celebrate the big night? I was in Portland’s Old Port and it was packed! Lines everywhere, bumped by a guy holding a Heineken at every turn (my worst nightmare), and cover charges at places that are usually free (o the humanity!) Let’s just say it’s a holiday that tries very hard to be a blast but often comes up short. I’m over it. But, no matter where I was December 31st, I was always with friends, and that’s what matters. I hope you all can say the same.

Anyway, welcome to the first review on 2011!

And to kick off my January 2011 right (with my stomach, naturally) I ventured to Portland again on New Year’s Day. After meeting up with a date for a coffee I, needing some decompressing after the New Years cluster fudge, suggested we tackle a restaurant that was much hyped a few years ago and I haven’t been to since its toddler years, Vignola. And so it begins.

Vignola,, is the “younger sister” restaurant to fantastic Cinque Terre, about three doors down from each other. Vignola is the more approachable and affordable option of the two, with a pizza, cheese and appetizer focus. The space is great, and the outside of the restaurant is probably the most beautiful part. Covered in ivy in the summer, and even beautiful in the winter with its dark green woodwork, the place looks impressive from the outside.

The outside of Vignola, promising right?

Once you get in, the good vibes continue, with exposed brick, light fixtures made out of wine bottles, and room length banquettes, the effect is hip and laid back. One side note to the décor is that the tables are slam packed in the somewhat small restaurant, so if you enjoy hearing people break up or talk about what babysitter to go with (both conversations I heard last night) then god speed. But I digress, on to the food.

I started the meal with a couple oysters, which were the best thing I ate during the dinner; light, sweet, and dressed in festive Posecco, yum! Then I ordered the Beet Carpaccio which Grandview farm beets, local greens, herb vinaigrette, farm apples and this was pretty good too, but not amazing. My friend ordered the Lattuga, or a type of modified Caesar, with bibb lettuce, creamy garlic dressing, focaccia croutons, shaved pecorino cheese. It was good, but the lettuce was a bit wilted, too bad. Then we both ordered individual pizzas, my friend cheese and me a pepper with basil. Both were ok, but I wasn’t wild about the dough nor the pizza’s appearance, kind of heat-lamp warmed looking (know what I mean?)

The overall effect of the menu is that it seems to exist only to support their wonderful wine selection, a type of specialized bar menu where an entire page is devoted to cheese. (Something we should have ordered, after reflection).

All told, the meal was a bit of a bummer, mostly because I kept wishing that I was at Cinque Terre. This could say it all about the little sister, Vignola. Also, interestingly, their online menu isn’t up to date, and I couldn’t find the pizza I had last night online. (Red flag?)

Is there something I forgot? O, right, the service. Well, in all due respect to the servers here, they are friendly, and the hostess was very sweet, but our waiter could have passed for one of the guys, a mere 24 hours before that kept bumping into me holding that ever present Heineken… yep, I said it. This isn’t Cinque Terre for many reasons I guess.

So, rating time? Yes. This is upright a 3 Fork place. The food is alright, and better than at restaurants by the mall or even some other Italian places in Portland. But, if you want some wine and cheese, and some good oysters, then come here, it’s really more of a bar anyway. But I have my own favorite restaurants and Vignola isn’t one.

To clean my palate a bit, my date and I walked around the Old Port before walking down Portland’s Warf Street and settling on dessert at Havana South,, the companion to Havana in Bar Harbor, ME. (Or as it should be known, the place where President Obama dined at when he vacationed here)
Havana South, in contrast to Vignola, is very new, very hot, and very good restaurant, with a full menu of American cuisine with a Latin splash, and a delish dessert offering that makes mediocre Italian a distant memory. The space is beautiful, if a touch too big for the amount of business they get, and the bar is very lush with dark wood and more of a stylish crowd around it than often elsewhere in Portland. Also, from previous visits, I know it has the best Mojito I’ve had in Maine, or on the east coast for that matter.

We were sat right away, and I even saw a friend there celebrating her birthday, so this was better than discussions of breaking up or baby sitters (obviously). For dessert I had the Fired Ice Cream over a dense and complex brownie, and my date had the Lemon Tart with sugared lemons and a sugared mint leaf as garnish. How fancy! The restaurant was simply better than the one we came from; much better lighting, better service, and even better water (what?), all of which combine to cap off the night on a sweet and successful note. Thank god.

The Lemon Tart, so good (look at the sugared mint leaves)

Rating for Havana South? Well I can only rate the dessert, and what I had was 4 Forks no doubt, and the lemon tart? 5 Forks, the first 5 Fork I’ve given, because the tart was just that good, perfect really. What about the overall experience? A solid 4 Forks again, because it has a lot to offer, and you’ll understand what I mean when you go there.

Words for the day? Yes please!

Bring it on 2011! May you bring good meals and even better memories. Also, may you hopefully jobs for all my unemployed friends. Maybe if everyone becomes gainfully employed, I will be treated to even more dinners out? Wishful thinking I suppose. But hey, dream big right?

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